Update II: A Quick Interim Report on the Upcoming Sale of Benin Artefacts at Sotheby's
With Chika Okeke today another prominent historian of African arts has used his blog to intervene into the debate and support the campaign to stop the sale. He argues that
It is one thing for the likes of James Cuno at the Art Institute of Chicago to continue arguing against the possibility of repatriating art works plundered by European powers in the age of colonialism but that have found their way into the so-called repositories of human civilization; it is another for the family of this plunderer to bring out the stuff their ancestor stole a few generations ago from wherever they hid them, in the hope of making a fortune. Do they think that waiting 103 years after the theft would make the works legally theirs? Frankly, I see no logical difference between the fate of these works taken from the Oba of Benin's private collection, and the works seized from their Jewish owners by the Nazis. This Sotheby's auction should present a good test case for the long-awaited process of righting a terrible wrong done to the grandfather of the present Oba of Benin by the British imperial regime.
He also links back to a post he published two years ago on the occasion of the showing in Chicago of the Benin—Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria curated by Babara Plankensteiner (here Tam Fiofori’s account of meeting the Austrian curator) and originally held at the Museum für Völkerkunde—Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. In that post, he reminds us of the longstanding campaign for the restitution of the artefacts removed in 1897 headed by the current Oba of Benin.
I regret though that nothing will be heard on this side of the Atlantic about the passionate plea made by the Oba of Benin during the opening of the show in Vienna for meaningful, good faith discussion about the possibility of loaning some of the works in European collections to the Palace as a compromise solution to the thorny, complex question of ownership of the bronzes most of which were looted by British soldiers (of fortune!) in 1897 during the so-called Punitive Expedition. In his Vienna speech, the Oba made it clear that though the Palace is the rightful owner of the objects, it recognizes the irreversible(?) history of their removal and incorporation into national, public and private collections in the West, and is not calling for their permanent return to Benin (possibly because there are so many national and international legislations and political imperatives that make such talk all but academic. At least for the moment!). Alas, because of the immense economic and symbolic value attached to these materials as objects d'art, but also because of enduring anxiety of loss people feel when they claim ownership of something that came into their holdings as a result of their ancestors' sordid actions, the Oba's proposal will never reach the ears or assail the political consciences of the Western "owners" of the Benin treasures.
Scholars of Africa and African arts have also more or less successfully raised the issue in other forums.